Well here’s a classic. One of those books you see in cheap anonymous editions in supermarkets and book shops. Out of copyright, low-grade editions flanged together on the cheap by various publishers you’ve never heard of. It’s famous. How’s it to read?
The story is subtitled ‘an episode of the American civil war’ and it is in essence ‘young man learns lesson’. He learns how he will cope in a fight, and it’s not all good news. Shame, fear, braggadocio, boredom.
Our protagonist is mostly referred to as ‘the youth’, and the author gets close to him but dissects him dispassionately at the same time. It means that the tone of the book takes a little getting used to, but it works very well.
The story is leavened by flashes of wit and neat turns of phrase from the author.
He made a fine use of the third person.
He evidently complimented himself on the modesty of this statement.
Some in the regiment began to whoop frenziedly. Many were silent. Apparently they were trying to contemplate themselves.
He had performed his mistake in the dark, so he was still a man.
The youth’s friend had a geographical illusion concerning a stream…
The forest made a tremendous objection.
He had continued to curse, but it was now with the air of a man who was using his last box of oaths.
But I must advise no one to buy the edition illustrated above, It is one of the most carelessly put together volumes I have ever seen. Here is the contents page:
…and I think you’ll agree it is of doubtful utility. More to the point, the book is full of typographical errors, including ‘rig2ht’ and ‘allusions’ for ‘illusions’ and the like. Most importantly, it drops two paragraphs from possibly the most crucial section of the book, such that the main character suddenly has a wound on his head and I can’t tell how. I spent a good half hour flipping through the book trying to work out when it had happened and assuming I had been distracted while reading and had not noticed; only recourse to another edition, a good one put out by a reputable publisher, was able to confirm that bits were missing.
To sum up: I can recommend this book, but not in this edition.
First, I have to point out this: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/low_concept/2010/11/please_allow_me_to_correct_a_few_things.html.
Brilliant and mostly spot on.
Keith Richards is of course famous. He’s been playing geetar in some band since Moses was a boy and apparently the NME voted him ‘most likely to die in the next year’ ten times in a row in the 70s. But he’s still alive. The Stones just knocked out one of their better albums of the last [[insert preferred value here]] years, Blue and Lonesome which, tellingly, is all covers; they’ve still got their chops as players, but they (Keith and Mick) aren’t writing great tunes so often. Well, they did plenty way back when and they can’t all be gems. As long as Charlie is drumming there’s something worth hearing on a Stones record.
Speaking about way back when: Life is Keith’s ghosted autobiography, put together by James Fox from many hours of recorded interviews. It’s very thick. About 550 pages. If you like thick books about rock stars, it’s got you covered. It made a bit of a splash on release ‘cos Keith says lots of rude things about Mick Jagger. Well, you know, Keith wanted to sell copies, didn’t he? But in a sense those things are very telling. They put me on alert as a reader. Immediately I wonder; how much of the negative stuff he says is true? The shots about the size of Jagger’s cock are cheap, juvenile and the kind of thing designed to stir up tabloid press interest (and stir up Mick), none of which requires them to be true. Pete Townshend says the comments are wrong, anyway. So I’m wondering; if Keith is prepared to say pretty much anything to make a stir, what else in the book is unreliable? The whole thing is tarnished.
Take another little example, trivial of itself. He critiques Jagger’s (pretty terrible) solo output. She’s The Boss, Primitive Cool, Goddess in the Doorway, yeah, they’re all pretty dire attempts are hooking into the current fashion. But he strategically leaves out Wandering Spirit, easily Jagger’s best solo outing. Why? Probably ‘cos it’s the only one that isn’t disappointing. So he just omits it. Little bits of manipulation, when they come to your attention, they cast doubt on everything else, on much bigger and more interesting topics.
There is a sense of unreality about the whole book, despite the level of detail. Oh, much of it is most likely true, and when Keith talks about the music he loves or some of the intricacies of guitar tuning, or making bangers and mash, he’s genuinely affecting. So the bullshit becomes all the more disappointing.
He threatened Billy Preston with a knife when he was playing too loudly, he threatened a record exec with a knife when he dared make suggestions in a mixing booth, he shot this with a gun, that with a gun, took this, swallowed that, nearly died when this happened, nearly died when that happened… it’s probably all true, but I’m always thinking as I read: “Is this what happened, or is this designed to gild the Richards legend?” Keith is cool enough without all the dodgy claims.
And that is the core of the problem I have with the book. I don’t know if I can trust it, so I wonder why I am reading it. I mean, the incidents are entertaining and well told, but I’d like to know if it’s fact or fiction. He’s probably never cleaned his own kitchen or put a load of washing in the machine (I’m jealous). He’s never lived in the real world since he was 20, and he’s not starting to with this book.
The other problem is Keith himself. I don’t want a book full of agonising over what might have been/should have been/how he hurt people and so on (that’s Who I Am, by Pete Townshend), but a little admission that maybe he spent a lot of his life being pretty unhelpful (to put it in very mild terms) would have leant a little more reality to the proceedings. He points out that while he was on heroin he made Exile on Main St and learned to ski, or whatever. But he also made Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock n Roll, Black and Blue and Love You Live, none of which are exactly brilliant, though there are flashes enough to suggest that had he had it together the spark might have survived. And even after he kicked it, the great songs have been intermittent at best. (I’ll say this for the book, I listened to ‘How Can I Stop’ off the forgotten Bridges to Babylon with new ears, and, yes, it’s a great track.) In the 70s Mick Jagger held the band together and made Keith wealthy and kept the money flowing, while Keith spent his time making sure there’d be a hit of heroin waiting for him when the plane landed. Jagger was the grown-up and Keith perennially a child. But the magic of the Stones was gone ‘cos, really, the Stones were great when Keith was great, and in the 70s Keith was about drugs before he was about music. They say in sport ‘don’t flirt with your form’. When you’re on a roll, don’t take your foot off the gas. By the time he got off heroin, the momentum was long gone. It’s flared up now and again since; his solo Talk is Cheap, made when he was pissed off at Jagger, is a great record if you like Keith’s riffology.
Is it a good read? Oh, yeah. If you’re a Stones fan or a Keith fan, yeah. But the Richards ego is enormous. He barely recognises the existence of contemporaries beyond the Beatles and Elvis, as if they had nothing to teach him. So if you’re a fan to 60s/70s music in the broader sense, there’s surprisingly little here for you.
Keith’s cool, Keith’s tough, Keith has played and made some great music, he’s had an amazing life. His story is worth reading. Just take it with a grain of salt (and a shot of tequila).
An album a what?
Penguin, 1994, 357 pages.
Well. This book is replete with summaries of studies that on the whole show that we are creatures of habit, instinct and fear more than thought and reason. We suffer from the illusion of control. We make emotional decisions and then convince ourselves they were carefully reasoned. We avoid data that might prove us wrong, even when being proved wrong is the best thing that could happen to us.
I can’t say I was shocked. There’s a time and a place for aiming for the utmost in rationality, of course, and times when that’s not sensible, and it is useful to know the difference. If you’re being chased by a bear a quick but sub-optimal decision may be better than making the right one too late. And it’s useful to know when it doesn’t really matter and you can just please your inner reptile, and when you really do need to sit down and analyse things properly.
And in a sense that is the key point. He basically says that only by understanding statistics and by essentially falling back on some means of scoring the alternatives and then picking the one with the best score can we really make rational decisions. Otherwise we rely on impressions, feelings and hunches, none of which are actually reliable. In the end, only by breaking down the problem and applying some kind of rigorous-as-possible analysis, generally relying on mathematics, can a really rational decision be made. And what fraction of decisions are made like than? In my life, relatively few.
Each chapter tackles various forms of irrationality, and each ends with a ‘moral’ which is really a bullet-point summary, the last one of which is usually humorous/facetious. (‘Eat what you fancy.’)
There is some repetition, but the points being made deserve hammering home. There are some lovely little ‘try this yourself’ puzzles, where even though I knew there was a trick and I desperately did not want to answer like an irrational creature, I still got it wrong. The simple two card trick, for example, which I won’t describe in detail here since it would be too much like giving away the twist in the tail.
In summary, if you think you are good at making decisions, you might find this book useful. If you already believe that we’re basically animals in clothes, this will not disabuse you. It’s funny, opinionated, amusing and entertaining, but a little, I repeat, repetitive. Some of the case studies of how really really really important ‘decisions’ were made are a little worrisome, especially because (of course) human nature has not really changed in the meantime. I sometimes look around at a skyscraper, or read about a decision to go to war or spend billions of dollars on a useless aeroplane, and this book comes to mind. Will the building fall down? Is the war really worthwhile? Will the aeroplane get off the ground, and if it does will it stay up?
In some ways the book makes our achievements all the greater. Okay, the planet is in trouble. Okay, we don’t always elect great leaders or do the right thing by our neighbours, family, friends. Yet so much has been done. We’re not always rational, no, and neither should we be. Would more people be happier if the balance shifted towards more rationality? Probably. Yet on the whole we go forward, stumbling sometimes, by accident sometimes, yet we do live longer, we have sent people (okay, men) to the moon, vastly fewer children and mothers die in childbirth. It’s not all bad, this world.
Anyway, it’s a good book.
Note to self: Audible activation of devices — it matters where your computer thinks you are.
I don’t much like the service provided by audible.com — lots of DRM, inconvenience, and so on. But there is not much choice in the audiobook space. Librivox is excellent but perforce limited in what it can provide (I highly recommend anything read by Mark Nelson or Karen Savage).
So I recently wanted to activate an mp3 player — a Philips GoGear Raga, one of the earlier ones with the power button on top, much better than the crippled later ones (‘Raga 3’) which use the main stop/start button for power and are too slow in responding to button pushes to be fit for purpose. The earlier ones (this one is a ‘Raga 2’) were a useful, cheap, audible-enabled player.
Some background; I have an Audible username, not an Amazon account (the account is from before they were merged) and I am based in Australia.
- Updated Audible manager. This is Windows software. I use it about once a year so I always need a new version.
- Plugged in mp3 player. Selected it within Manager and selected ‘Activate’ from the Devices menu.
- Was sent to a webpage where I was to log in to Audible, but there was no option to put in an Audible username, only an Amazon account.
- Read lots of (so-called) ‘Help’ information. Nothing.
- Began a Chat with Audible staff.
- An hour was spent installing software, changing the default web browser from Firefox to IE, scratching heads, and so on.
- Turned out that this is the story: My Audible account is from before they had a presence in Australia and before they merged with Amazon. As a result, I need to log in to the US site, because the Australian one has no link for logging in via an Audible username. So…
- Went into computer settings and changed the location (and language, though probably not necessary) to ‘United States’. At this point the default browser was still changed to IE, though that is not important unless IE and Firefox use the locale information differently.
- Now tried to activate device. Was forwarded to a US website that did have the ‘log in with username’ (or whatever it was) option.
- Did so, and the device was activated.
- Changed computer settings back to what they were.
So, the upshot is that if you are trying to do something with an Audible username from outside the USA, but you are getting directed to a webpage that does not let you log in that way, pretending you are in the USA might be the solution to your problem.
The Raider Wolf by Roy Alexander
Angus & Robertson 1968, 177 pages, plus a map.
How many stories of bravery, survival and resourcefulness will never get told? How many have already been forgotten? This is one that is recorded, but it must stand for so many more.
The commerce raider Wolf left Germany on 30th November 1916. She returned 24th Feb, 1918, having sailed a distance equal to three times around the world and and sunk over 100 thousand tonnes of enemy shipping. It was a remarkable feat of seamanship, endurance, cunning and improvisation. This book tells that story, but, more remarkably, it does so from the point of view of one of the sailors interned aboard the Wolf. For the Wolf relied above all things on secrecy. So — what to do about the sailors from the defeated ships? If allowed free, Wolf’s existence and identification would be revealed. Kill them? Not Captain Nerger, a man of stern but human principles. So take them prisoner, keep them in the hold once allocated to mines … and take them, after a year at sea, to prison in Germany.
And for what, in the end? Always with war stories that is the question I cannot avoid. All the great and terrible qualities shown by both sides, and all for killing and destruction. It is a pity the myth of Glory is not yet disposed of.
Scurvy, death, madness. All these befell the prisoners. Yet though they were held under discipline, they were treated as men, not animals. But there is never an infinite supply of food…
The scenes below deck made me think of a Samuel Beckett novel, How It Is, with its endless crawling across an empty space, presumably simply because the alternative is stasis. At times I imagined a Lord of the Flies situation, or a kind of dissection of human behaviour under pressure like in If This is a Man. We have prisoners, bent on doing any little thing they can for the war effort, sneaking messages in bottles overboard, we have the captured ‘neutrals’ being given the chance to work for the German captain and being reviled by the prisoners — the opportunities for incident, for personal politics, and for bravery would make this a great setting for a novel. It has the dramatic unity of a curtailed space, limited resources, hierarchy, diverse sailors from multiple backgrounds being lumped together, people under pressure who simply cannot get out of each others’ way.
Anyone who likes war fiction or fact, or who likes the kind of stories that cut to the heart of what humans can do when pushed — both for good and ill — could get something out of this book. Great literature it is not (the prose is workmanlike and serviceable) but the story is remarkable, some of the characters are astonishing, and the setting is evoked effectively and with authority. If you see it, consider picking it up.
Under the sea.
The World Swappers by John Brunner
Ace, some time in the 60s. 153 pages.
To me Brunner is a major figure of 60s and 70s SF. His ‘big 4‘ novels of the late 60s/early 70s, (Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider and Jagged Orbit) form a block of work few writers can match; even so, they are perhaps more admired and respected than loved.
The World Swappers is a much earlier work — 1959 according to the imprint page, when Brunner was around 24 years old and had already been publishing for seven years, and was trying to make it as a full-time writer,
It draws on numerous conventions of space opera — matter transmission, faster than light travel, aliens, supermen (well, sort of). Brunner played with the matter transmitter off and on throughout his career. Another one that that comes to mind is The Infinitive of Go a much later tale with an asperity and astringency that I liked, though probably not to everyone‘s taste. This is a much earlier tale, and closer to the heart of space opera. Yet there remains a sense of calculation to it, as if Brunner the craftsman did not quite manage to hide the scaffolding from the reader. Someone who appears set to be a major character hardly appears again after the first chapter. Characters are wheeled in and out like gears being shunted back and forth in a gearbox, with nothing but the needs of the plot to impel them. Nowhere is there are character to root for.
The quote on the front cover says ‘very competent‘, but nothing more effusive. And it’s right. The story hangs together, every part functions, we get to an ending that manages to wrap up what went before. Did I care? No. Can I see that the author knows how to write? Yes.
For the completist Brunnerfile, Brunnerphile only.
Here’s a novelty; I’m talking about a kids’ book. Originally published in French as Les Contraires, Elephant Elements is that rare beast, a work aimed at kids which pleases adults but without being sly or condescending.
So many childrens’ books illustrate one word per page, to build vocabulary and teach those first few words. How could one word offer scope for wit, style and panache? This is where some creative people can find new ground where there seems to be none. This book does it by, as the French title suggests, pairing opposites. But it does it in the context of what they would mean for an elephant. And it does the unexpected. ‘Big/Small’ is commonplace, but how about ‘Solid/Liquid’? How does that work for an elephant? Below is a personal favourite, that captures the impish wit of the book.
There’s a kind of comedian’s timing to the entries. A few commonplace pairings, like ‘Big/Small’, then something a little unexpected. Then a few more plain ones and then… Until you are turning every page with a little thrill of anticipation. Will it be conventional (though still illustrated in those charmingly simple drawings)? Or will it be completely out of left field?
Well, I don’t want to spoil it. But I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes one word per page.
As someone working in a technical field, I often feel like designers do not really appreciate the subtleties of notation and how to make it clear. In the title of this post, ‘I and l’ is upper case ‘eye’ and lower case ‘el’. Not that you can tell.
and here is the same formula using some sans serif fonts, using Microsoft Word…
Now, this is not to criticise these fonts. They are just not designed for this job. It is the chooser of the font who is being a wee bit silly if these fonts are used in a mathematical document. An even trickier example is…
which I have produced in LaTeX, and the nu and vee are well-differentiated, but that is because the font was designed by someone (Knuth) with the express purpose of laying out mathematics.
If I was able to give advice to anyone out there designing a text with mathematics in it, it would be to look at the two letter/symbol pairs I have shown here, and make sure they can be told apart. If not, the font choice is a poor one and needs to be changed. And what is fashionable at the moment is irrelevant beside the need for clarity and the fight against ambiguity and lack of precision.
On Saturday 12 Nov in 2016 I attended the inaugural Goulburn Readers Writers Festival. It was small but very well done, and bodes well for the future. The two events I went to were the bookbinding workshop, run by Erika Mordek of the National Library of Australia, and a talk on his career so far by George Ivanoff. Both were excellent. George is an enthusiastic and engaging speaker, and extremely down-to-earth about the writing business. I’d recommend any aspiring author who wants to make some actual money out of it (a tough gig!) listen to him speak if the opportunity arises. He did not waffle on about literary theory or self expression. He talked about how to make a living by writing stories. Writing for the education market, taking the opportunities when they come and running with them as hard as you can, making connections and then delivering on time as promised every time, so you get a reputation as reliable. And writing and writing and writing so you keep getting better.
And I spent about four hours learning about bookbinding, sewing pages together. I have not concentrated so hard for so long in ages. The presenter, Erika, was enthusiastic, and relentless in her encouragement and in pushing us through the task. Key phrase — ‘trust your eye’. Erika runs courses at CIT, and works as a book conservator at the NLA — so she knows her stuff. We went from a pile of pages to a completed little bound notebook. We started, though, by sewing together our notes. Here is the cover of the notes booklet:
So lesson #1 was a sort of ‘booklet stitch’, which was remarkably simple once you were told what to do and potentially quite useful of itself. Then we started the main project — sewing six signatures of three folded A4 sheets each into a hardback notebook. There were a lot of tricky little things, but mostly it takes patience and method — like make sure there are no blobs of glue on the work surface before you put the book down…. Anyway, the final result looks like this:
So you can see the cloth spine, the decorated paper that was used for the cover, and some of the inner bits showing at the bottom edge, where I did not make the blue bit quite big enough….
What you can’t see are the stitches that hold it together, the endpapers, the card that stiffens the covers, the card that stiffens the spine…. There’s a lot in there that is not immediately apparent to the eye.
It was a fascinating experience. I fully intend to try to make a few more little volumes, and sooner rather than later so I don’t forget too much.
Oh, and the sordid subject of money? George’s talk was free and the workshop was $10 — for four hours tutoring by an expert, and all tools and materials supplied and a little notebook to keep at the end.
Impossibly good value.